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    Transcendental meditation, the Independent on Sunday, July 2011

    For years, it has been ridiculed as a 1960s embarrassment. Now Transcendental Meditation is back in a big way. So were those hippies on to something all along?

    Follow the link to the Independent on Sunday http://tinyurl.com/66sjsyp

    Remember M-People’s euphoric 1995 top ten hit telling us to ‘search for the hero inside ourselves’? In the Teens, it strikes me, it’s not so much a hero as a guru that many of us are hoping to internalise. Our latest crush is Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, founder of the Transcendental Meditation movement, and the fact that he passed to a better place in 2008 doesn’t appear to have discouraged us.

     

    In fact TM, as its followers call it, is rapidly moving from the kooky margins to the respectable mainstream, largely because of the impressive body of scientific research now indicating striking reductions in heart attack, stroke and mortality rates for regular meditators (as much as 47%, according to one study).

     

    TM’s apparent benefits don’t stop there. According to a pilot study just published in US journal Military Medicine, veterans of the Iraq/Afghanistan wars showed a 50 percent reduction in their symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) after eight weeks of TM.

     

    Schools, meanwhile, which introduce a ‘quiet time programme’, as did Visitacion Valley in San Francisco, experience drops in fights and suspensions, increased attendance, and improvements in exam results. In this country, the Maharishi School in the unlikely location of Ormskirk, Lancashire, gets glowing reports from Ofsted and achieves exceptional academic results.

     

    An estimated 4 million people practice TM globally, 20 minutes twice daily as per the Maharishi’s prescription, many of them over the course of many decades, and there are some famous, and rather surprising, names on the list. Clint Eastwood, for example, has been doing it for 40 years, a fact he vouchsafed via video link at a fundraising dinner for the David Lynch Foundation, an organisation set up by the filmmaker to teach TM to schoolchildren, soldiers suffering PTSD, the homeless and convicted prisoners. Mary Tyler Moore is another TM-er. George Harrison continued to meditate every day until he died, while Paul McCartney is probably the most famous living adherent of TM (others include Russell Brand, Martin Scorsese, Ringo Starr, Laura Dern and Moby).

     

    TM reaches far into the rational and sceptical world too; the philosopher Daniel Dennett does it, as does Dr Jonathan Rowson, head of the RSA’s Social Brain project and chess Grandmaster (more from them later). Now a psychiatrist with 30 years clinical and research experience, Dr Norman Rosenthal, has written a book, Transcendence Healing and Transformation, which gathers together all the available evidence for TM and urges healthcare professionals to offer it to patients suffering from mental illnesses ranging from mild depression to bi-polar disorder.

     

    While the research on the benefits of TM to schoolchildren, prisoners and the sick is fascinating, there’s another more compelling reason why meditation in general and TM in particular is au courant just now. Done consistently, TM seems to offer some sort of corrective to modernity. It’s what we all want: the ability to really, truly relax, without chemical assistance. Respite from anxiety and a worn out fight or flight stress response that can so easily morph into depression. A break from our constant, restless and frequently unmet aspirations to be thinner, richer and more popular on Facebook. The welcome discovery that calm, abiding happiness is to be found not in retail therapy, but within. The possibility that, with all those distractions out of the way, one might actually be, do or make something better.

     

    Those spiritual cravings might explain why Rosenthal’s book is now at no 14 on America’s Publishers Weekly non-fiction list (just below a book, I was amused to see, meeting different kinds of cravings – The Carb Lovers Diet). According to TM UK’s official representative David Hughes, an affable, rather vague Northerner who is more geography teacher than hippy, an estimated 200,000 people have learnt TM in the UK since 1960, ‘that there’s definitely an ongoing increase month by month.’

     

    I first began to ponder the notion of meditation while writing a piece on solitude. While aloneness may not be a state that comes naturally to most humans, without it, mental health experts believe, it is impossible to be creative or even really know oneself. It was the sheerest coincidence that the day I contacted TM’s UK website (www.t-m.org.uk) they were preparing for Dr Rosenthal’s press conference.

     

    My adventures in TM began soon after, but first, a little history for those readers too young to remember TM’s 10960s ‘first wave’. Many of those who do recall the arrival of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in Britain in 1967 understandably feel that TM has been discredited beyond hope of rehabilitation by years of embarrassing rumours and implausible claims. The Maharishi, the movement’s founder and head, died in 2008 but his leadership had been associated with an unseemly desire to cash in on his celebrity followers (including, most famously, the Beatles) and the accumulation of a substantial personal fortune (he was thought to have an income of £6 million pounds, and in 1998 the movement’s property assets were valued at $3.5 billion). Sexual impropriety was also alleged; the Beatles were said to have fallen out with the Maharishi in the late Sixties at least partly because of his attempted seduction of Mia Farrow, or possibly her sister Prudence, at his ashram in India.

     

    Generations of Oxford undergraduates have joked about nearby Mentmore Towers, the mansion in Buckinghamshire where the Maharishi installed 100 young men in 1979 to practice continuous, advanced level TM (they’ve since been retired). The inherently comical idea of yogic flying (actually yogic hopping) has always strained credibility, as has the Maharishi’s claim that if 1% of the globe’s population practiced TM, the flow of ‘good vibrations’ would bring about a universal state of ‘bliss consciousness’.

     

    Then there was the Natural Law Party, the ‘political arm’ of the TM movement, extant from 1993 to 1999 and set up, according to David Hughes, to ‘get the message across’ about TM and also, bizarrely, the dangers of GM food. The party was a resounding flop, testament, perhaps, to the British mistrust of mysticism and religiosity in the political arena.

     

    TM also infuriates many militant atheists in a way that ‘mindfulness meditation’, which draws on the Buddhist tradition, does not. Sam Harris is a neuroscientist and the author of books including The End of Faith and The Moral Landscape and a blog, On Spiritual Truths. In a piece for the Huffington Post, How to Meditate, he remarks that ‘Even an organization like Transcendental Meditation, which has spent decades self-consciously adapting itself for use by non-Hindus, can’t overcome the fact that its students must be given a Sanskrit mantra as the foundation of the practice. Ancient incantations present an impediment to many a discerning mind (as does the fact that TM displays several, odious signs of being a cult).’

     

    Against these objections should be set the fact that people who start meditating tend to keep at it – often for the rest of their lives – a phenomenon suggesting to me that its benefits, while slow and cumulative, are palpable. Dr Jonathan Rowson has been practising TM for 14 years, since he was an undergraduate at Oxford.  ‘I would say that TM is physiologically very powerful, and spiritually a bit shallow,’ he says. ‘There are few things better for recharging you and giving you a feeling of serenity, energy and balance. But I don’t think it gives you any particular insight into your own mind.’

     

    Now it seems that scientific research is backing up Rowson’s experience. Dr Rosenthal is a psychiatrist and researcher who came to public prominence through his work on Seasonal Affective Disorder at the National Institute of Mental Health in Bethseda, Maryland, where he also pioneered the use of light therapy to treat it. His interest in TM was piqued when one of his bi-polar patients described how practicing TM alongside his regular medication had helped him move from ‘keeping his head above water’ to feeling ‘really happy ninety percent of the time’.

     

    Rosenthal began to examine the large body of scientific research into the effects of TM on long-term users, and also to collect anecdotal evidence from meditators, some well-known, others less so. Transcendence: Healing and Transformation Through Transcendental Meditation (Tarcher Penguin, $25.95) is the result, although as he acknowledges in his introduction, ‘Some of you may find this preview of the benefits of TM – this seemingly simple technique – exaggerated and hard to believe. I don’t blame you.’

     

    Yet he goes on to say that TM ‘truly surprises’, and draws on 340 peer-reviewed research articles (you can find a list of the relevant journals at truthabouttm.org) to back up his argument that TM can not only reduce the incidence of cardiovascular disease, but also assist in the treatment of addiction, post-traumatic stress disorder, ADHD and depression, not to mention help already high-functioning individuals achieve greater ‘self-actualization’.

     

    His most startling chapter concerns its effects on our physical health. Stress causes cardiovascular disease because it stimulates the production of epinephrine and norepinephrine in our systems, causing our heart to pump faster, our arteries to constrict and our blood pressure to rise. Reducing stress therefore reduces our risk of CVD and coronary heart disease, as was shown by one study conducted by the paediatric department of the Medical College of Georgia which ‘treated’ high blood pressure in 100 teenagers with on the one hand, TM, and on the other, health education. At the end of the study, the TM group showed a significant drop in blood pressure compared to the control group.

     

    Much of the research on heart disease Rosenthal quotes is the work of Robert Schneider, the director of the Institute for Natural Medicine and Prevention at the Maharishi University of Management in Iowa. Schneider’s headline finding is probably the fact that ‘heart attack, stroke and mortality rates were reduced by 47% in coronary patients who practised TM’, a conclusion he reached after a nine-year study presented at the American Heart Association Conference in November 2009.

     

    While this research is carried out by doctors who are necessarily partial, the trials are acknowledged to be well-controlled and peer-reviewed, and are scientifically respectable enough for the US government to give tens of millions of dollars in research funding to Maharishi University. Yet the reader feels on securer ground when Rosenthal quotes another study, this one conducted by non-TM doctors at Cedars-Sinai Medical Centre in Los Angeles, on ‘metabolic syndrome’, which is associated with heart disease. The randomized controlled study compared TM with health education, and found significant improvements in insulin sensitivity and lower blood pressure in the TM group.

     

    Listening to Rosenthal talk, I was impressed by his long medical experience and academic credentials. Yet TM’s ability to reduce one’s risk of heart disease interested me less than its effects on mental well-being and creativity. Maslow’s famous hierarchy of needs described ‘self-actualization’ as the thing humans seek when their six basic needs for food, safety, physical shelter, love, sex and a sense of belonging have been met. Like many other evolved and somewhat spoilt beneficiaries of the affluent West, I too wanted to self-actualize, and I hoped TM could help me do it.

     

    Acquiring the skill isn’t difficult, but it does require the investment of time and money. Fees are charged on a sliding scale according to income, starting at £190 for children and going up to £590, and can be paid in installments. Initiates attend four sessions, and are given a Sanskrit mantra, which is repeated soundlessly in one’s head while meditating. The objective, according to TM’s UK website, is that ‘the mind effortlessly transcends mental activity and experiences pure consciousness at the source of thought, while the body experiences a unique state of restfulness.’

     

    The first thing I noticed was that repeating the ‘sound vibration’ of my mantra took me to a place which was neither wakefulness, sleeping nor dreaming. Over the course of subsequent sessions I’ve regularly become detached from my physical self and dipped in and out of this ‘fourth state’ of consciousness. Allowing sometimes painful thoughts and feelings to come to the surface has bought tears to my eyes, but I’ve also reached some important decisions.

     

    A month into my practice, I have not so far experienced ‘bliss’, a condition beyond time and space in which one is not ‘ebulliently happy’ as Rosenthal puts it, but ‘calm and alert’; a state, he explains, quoting Abraham Joshua Heschel, in which one realises that ‘Just to be is a blessing. Just to live is holy.’ But I’m prepared to believe the effects are gradual and I’m struck by the fact that I no longer resent the necessary investment of time. It’s as if my mind and body have recognised, without my help, that TM is doing them good, and want to continue.

     

     

    The effectiveness of this daily ‘yoga for the mind’, as meditator and fashion designer Amy Molyneux calls it, is the reason, I think, that thousands of people can ignore the Maharishi’s theory in favour of his practice. As the philosopher Daniel Dennett, a particularly eminent meditator put it in an email to me, ‘In a sentence, I find that meditation (the way TM teaches, with a mantra) is a useful technique for calming and restoring balance. I’ve used it to help keep my blood pressure down. I view it as a safe and effective technique of self-control, nothing more.’ Other meditators I met or was introduced to included Claire Webb, a thirty year old screenwriter in search of ‘a sense of clarity and serenity’; Liz Antonia Thomas, a 52-year-old filmmaker who uses TM to help her cope with her severe rheumatoid arthritis; and Paul Wright, a histopathologist who’d moved from mindfulness meditation to TM because he found the latter ‘more energising and invigorating’.

     

    Depending on your point of view, however, TM’s spiritual aspects remain problematic. When the Maharishi School was granted ‘free school’ status, for example, allowing it to scrap its annual £7,600 fees and receive government funding, hackles were raised in more determinedly sceptical quarters.

     

    Should we be concerned that a school infused with the TM philosophy is getting government funding? TM doesn’t require you to be especially spiritual, change your lifestyle, adopt an elaborate belief system, venerate a particular person or give money beyond your initial course fee. If you wish to attend weekend retreats or learn a more powerful form of TM (called Sidhi) you certainly can; the vast majority of meditators, however, never feel the need.

     

    But to talk to the experts about whether the organisation merited the accusations of ‘cultishness’ sometimes levelled at it, I contacted Inform, a charity run by the London School of Economics to provide information about new religious movements or ‘cults’. Suzanne Newcombe is a research officer at the organisation. ‘We’ve had a certain number of complaints from members of the public about the fee structure,’ she says. ‘And occasionally relatives may be anxious about people who commit their whole lives to the movement. But we’re not overly concerned about adults making decisions for themselves which don’t hurt anyone else.’

     

    According to David Hughes, TM is a not-for-profit, charitable and educational foundation which, once it has paid its teachers and covered its costs, ploughs its revenue back into outreach programmes in the developing world. (For much more on the organisation’s financial arrangements, go to the US site, at www.tm.org).

     

    TM is certainly not shy about proselytising; but if its impact on public health is as great as Rosenthal believes, one could argue they have a moral responsibility to spread their message far and wide. As for me, I’m seriously considering my children to a stress and anxiety-busting daily ritual that can not possibly do harm and may well do good.

     

     

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